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Archive for September, 2010

Like a singer who’s an equally talented musician, Oliver Jeffers is the double threat of children’s literature: an artist who can write. And he does both brilliantly.

Jeffers is the creator of “The Incredible Book Eating Boy,” as well as five others that have become cult favorites among children’s book enthusiasts. But this book, more so than the rest, showcases his artistic talents and original voice.

A figurative painter and installation artist, Jeffers’ work has been exhibited throughout the world and in commercial projects for the likes of Starbucks, United Airlines, Sony PSP, RCA Records and Newsweek. Owning a copy of the “The Incredible Book Eating Boy” is truly like owning a piece of his art.

The book tells the tale of Henry, a boy with a voracious appetite for books. Not only does he find them delicious, but he also discovers that the more books he eats, the smarter he gets. That is until he starts eating books three and four at a time; then his brain becomes a jumbled mess and his stomach is a wreck to boot.

The storyline is simple, but the illustrations are captivatingly multifaceted. Every picture is built upon the remnants of other books: pages torn from dictionaries, maps from atlases, lined and graph paper and even entire outer covers with spines intact. The adult reader can’t help but examine the obscured texts, wondering what they were in their original form.

These authentically antique-hued backdrops are then layered with acrylic paints and pencil drawings. Even the text plays an element in this visual masterpiece, written partly in Jeffers’ own messy hand, the rest in Letraset transferred unevenly onto the page. The layered effect reminds me of Eric Carle’s tissue-paper technique. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Jeffers names “The Bad-Tempered Ladybird” (“The Grouchy Ladybug”) as one of his childhood favorites.

Jeffers has also said that his work is influenced by Roald Dahl, and “The Incredible Book Eating Boy” certainly brings to mind another all-time favorite children’s book: Matilda. The main characters in both books share similar literary passions as well as unusually advanced intelligence. In addition, the appearance of Jeffers’ characters resemble those produced by Dahl’s illustrator, Quentin Blake.

Although Jeffers has taken cues from some of the greatest children’s book authors, much of what he brings to “The Incredible Book Eating Boy” is one of a kind. Jeffers writes with such a fresh conversational tone, as if he were telling the story off the cuff to a young child at bedtime.

“Henry loved books. But not like you and I love books, no. Not quite…”

And there’s also a subtle humor to his illustrations, particularly the book’s ending:

The bite out of the back of this book is just one of the many eye-catching details that went into its production. Unique illustrations are hidden under the dust jacket, and the back cover bears a humorous disclaimer for young readers who may attempt to imitate Henry’s book-eating feats. This is truly a scrumptious book to own.

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Toilet Humor

Is it just me, or is Eloise the only one her age still in diapers? “She’ll let you know when she’s ready,” they’ve told me. Until now, I’ve used those reassurances as a free pass to avoid the issue altogether, mostly because I was too tired taking care of a baby to start cleaning up accidents.

But Baby is now a toddler, and Eloise is 2 ½. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment: We weaned Charlotte off the bottle last week, so throw whatever’s next at me – I’m ready! My “Guide to Toilet Training” is in hand, “Elmo’s Potty Time” is in the DVD player, there’s an enormous sticker chart on the bathroom wall and a bounty of rewards to be claimed upon Eloise’s first success: a new Backyardigans DVD, Cars stickers and more M&Ms than she ever knew existed.

As one would expect, there are literally hundreds of children’s books dedicated to the subject of potty training. One of the funniest I’ve come across – and you have to have a sense of humor when potty training – is Jeanne Willis’ “Who’s in the Bathroom?”

Originally titled, “Who’s in the Loo?,” this transplant from England is written from the perspective of two children waiting impatiently, then uncomfortably, at the end of a very long line to a public bathroom. Possibly to pass the time, the children ponder who could be taking so long in there and why:

“Is it a rhino passing some gasses?

It could be a tortoise. (They’re slow as molasses!)

Whoever it is, we hope that he dashes.”

Willis’ punchy rhymes are accompanied by Adrian Reynold’s cartoon-like illustrations, popping with color and depicting, at times, somewhat repulsive scenarios: a monkey washing his feet in the bowl and a cat “sailing off to a city of yuck.” I suspect only the parents of young children can truly appreciate this “toilet humor;” when else do we talk so openly and unabashedly about pooping and peeing, piddling and widdling?

Out of curiosity (and in an attempt to gauge the maturity of my sense of humor), I read over the book’s customer reviews on Amazon.com. Five of six reviewers raved and gave it five stars, but I had to laugh when I read this review from a woman named Diane:

“I read this book with my 6-year-old granddaughter. She was quite amused until we came to the drawing of a shepherd holding one of his sheep upside down with its head in the toilet. The shepherd is using his sheep as a ‘toilet bowl brush.’ This was disturbing to both of us. Not a book we’ll ever be reading again.”

More than anything, I guess I was just surprised Diane found this to be the most offensive image.

I like this book because, in the sea of bland books focused on proper toilet use, it gives a parent cause to laugh when little else does in the midst of potty training. The book stands out with its original plot, unexpected characters (I never knew what a stoat was until I read this book) and a true surprise ending. When the children just can’t hold it any longer, they cut to the front of the line, bang on the door and demand to know what’s going on: “We hear a small voice. It says, ‘If only you knew, I’m just doing what my mom told me to do. But it takes me forever; no one understands.”

It is an octopus washing his eight little hands!

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